Wendy XuOriginally from Baltimore, Maryland, Megan Turner grew up in Harrogate, England and Columbia, Maryland. She has a B.A. from Elon University and an M.F.A. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her work has been published in the Rio Grande Review and Witness.


Megan Turner

Intro By Kyle McCord

Megan Turner doesn't write romance.  She doesn't write horror or drama or thrillers.  Megan Turner writes tension.  Because of this, one could accuse her of delay, of deferring what other authors might dive into at greater pace, but, honestly, what is dilatory is also what is most intriguing about Turner's work.  Her characters are often solitary, fragile figures whose introversion is not necessarily heroic or aggrandizing.  Her plots pivot on minutia—an off-hand remark made during a morning conversation or the construction next door—that interrupts and irregularizes life. The resistance and acquiescence of each of the characters to these interruptions becomes its own intensely scrutinized dimension that is played out in the story. In “The Most Important Thing,” the narrator's comment that, “I was willing to leave it that way,” can certainly be more broadly applied ; Turner's work tests the bounds and limitations of contentment. In exploring the often awkward and pointedly uncomfortable moments between characters caught in social webs they would rather disregard, Turner reveals a deeper social topography that might be easy to forget. But these are stories that invite but don't insist upon interpretation.  She is a writer of extensive precision and visible intelligence in her restraint. Her stories are packed with the combustible elements of human relationship that constantly await that single match which sometimes fizzles, sometimes explodes. 

The Most Important Thing

I.

I was in the living room when he let himself in. The front door was open, the porch light on, and any passerby could see the usual blue of the T.V.

“Jacques Pierre,” he said, not hesitating at the door. He was a short man dressed in a v-neck sweater and button-down collared shirt. “Your mother. She calls me. Says you need a repairman.”

“Fine,” I said, getting up from the couch, clicking off the T.V.

Before Jacques, the days had gone on this way: a cup of coffee with breakfast, work until five, sitcoms at night. My mother was the only interruption.

“What’s wrong?” she would whisper into the phone each night.

“Nothing,” I’d say. Still, she called.

“It’s the light in the hallway,” I told her one evening, because it was something. “It’s burnt out,” I said.

I was willing to leave it that way. But, the next night there was Jacques Pierre with his box of tools and a ladder.


^^^^^

“It’s the one by the stairs,” I said when we got there. “I tried changing the bulb, but that didn’t work.”

Jacques was on his ladder already, examining the socket with a flashlight he wore attached to his head.

“What we have here is a burnt wire,” he said. “You see the severed ends? That’s no good. Maybe last time you used a bulb, too many watts.”

There was a pop, and the lights went out. It was silent for a moment. I could have heard anything in that silence. I heard nothing.

“Jacques?” I said when the silence rang too long in my ears.

“Ah. Yes,” Jacques said. “You hear that pop-pop? We blew a fuse. I fix that later.”

We stood in the dark, and I could only see Jacques: the man with a halo over his head. Every time he looked at me the light shined in my eyes. I forgot his face.

“You know where the fuse box is?” he asked after a while. I had been staring at Jacques. Perhaps that bothered the man.

“The fuse box?” he said, and I shook my head.

“No.”

“You don’t know? Don’t know where the fuse box is?”

“That’s right,” I said, watching Jacques. His short fingers held a light bulb in one hand, a screwdriver in the other. His fingernails had recently been cut.

“Ah. No good,” he said finally, shaking his head. “That’s no good.” He was back to work, still talking. “If there is one thing you should know, it’s where the fuse box is. That’s the most important thing,” he said. “Say you blow a fuse. You can’t see. You can’t find the fuse box in the dark. That’s very sad, no?”

It seemed right: what Jacques said, and I thought about the fuse box. Perhaps it was the most important thing.

“You don’t know,” he said again, shaking his head. “I’ll show you when we finish. This takes two minutes. Then, we find it together.”



^^^^^

The fuse box was in the basement. Jacques led the way, turning around halfway down the stairs, at the landing, near the laundry machine. Each time the light on his head hurt my eyes.

“Sorry,” he’d say, but he still turned to face me. “You need a flashlight,” he advised, pointing at his own. “Keep one by your bed. Just in case.”

There was a lightness to the way Jacques Pierre walked. He looked for the fuse box as if he had never seen one before. He was a whale watcher. A lover of sharks. I could picture him, a man on a touring boat in Maine, waiting for a spark of white.

“Ah-ha,” he said, when he found it. He lifted his hand to his head and shined the light to the corner of the room. It was a tiny box that looked like a medic’s first aid cabinet. It was pea green and ugly, but when Jacques Pierre touched it, he did so tenderly, in the way one would stroke a dog’s collar or an elder’s hand.

Jacques let go of the box and kicked a pile of laundry to the side.

“You need to keep a clear path to the box at all times. That’s very important,” he said. “You remember.”

Jacques opened the box and waited. I was standing behind him, and he motioned for me to get closer.

“Which one you think it is?” he asked, and I looked. Each switch was the same.

“See the one out of place? Each switch is to the right, you see?” he pointed. Then, his finger stopped. “This one. We have an odd ball. This one is switched to the left, no? Ah-ha. So, we switch it on,” he said. “You do.”

The lights went on.

“The miracle of light,” Jacques Pierre said raising his hands to the infinite above.


^^^^^

I walked Jacques Pierre to the door. He held his toolbox, his ladder. I waited for him to go.

“You’re bored, are you not?” he asked, and I thought of the night. Its seamlessness. The way time ran together until I couldn’t tell the difference between one moment and the next.

“I guess I am,” I said.

“Yah,” he nodded his head as if he had expected this. “Good luck to you, then,” he said patting me on the shoulder and opening the screen door. “You let me know how that light works out. Only temporary. Soon, you get something better.”

“Goodnight,” I said. He walked down the stairs. The screen door slammed, and Jacques froze.

“That door,” he said, turning. “We need to fix it.”

“Don’t worry about it, Jacques,” I said. “I haven’t even paid you,” I realized, digging into my pockets.

“No money, please,” said Jacques. “You’re a family friend.”

“Okay, then,” I said. “Goodnight,” and I closed the front door.

All the lights in the house were on. It was blinding. I went to turn them off, one by one until it was dark. I was prepared to spend the night in that darkness. Then, I heard the screen door slam. Slam. Slam. Slam, it went, and I listened to Jacques Pierre, fixing into the night.


II.

Construction workers had begun to repair the house next door, building a deck and repaving the driveway. Each morning, I heard them crushing rock and drilling to the morning show on their radio.

“Can’t they come in the spring?” I asked my mother on the phone.

“You could talk to the owner,” she told me.

“Yes,” I said. “I could,” but instead I slept late into the afternoon, closing the blinds when the construction workers arrived in their trucks each morning.

It was after 9:00 one day when I heard a tapping at my window.

“Mademoiselle,” Jacques Pierre called through the blinds.

I didn’t call back, but Jacques seemed to know I was there.

“Your roof,” he called again. “It needs fixing.”

I dressed quickly in a robe and slippers and went outside to find Jacques Pierre. He was high up on the ladder, removing leaves from the gutter above my window.

“Jacques?” I called.

“Ah, good,” he said. He didn’t look down. “You hold the ladder, yah?”

“Jacques,” I called again. “The roof is fine.”

“You hold with both hands,” he told me, pointing down towards the ladder. “Otherwise, very dangerous.”

I held each leg with a hand. When the ladder wobbled, I held tighter. I waited for Jacques. Crumbled leaves came down from the gutter. Pieces flew into my eyes.

When he was done, Jacques came down the ladder. He stood a step or two above the ground.

“You see my gloves?” Jacques Pierre pointed. They were covered in black. “That’s very bad,” he said. “When’s the last time you cleaned?”

“I don’t know, Jacques,” I said. “Maybe, never.”

“Never? Never cleaned the gutter?” he said.

“No. Maybe not. It’s not that important,” I said.

I looked up at Jacques. His hairline started far from his face. The hair was not receding but seemed to have started there as a child, as if Jacques’ face, long and wide, had been given room for expression. Below his forehead, Jacques’ face turned red. “I’ve been trying to sleep,” I told him. “There’s all that noise.” I pointed at the construction workers beyond the fence. Their land seemed to be sinking, the grass of their yard only matching the roots of mine. Jacques Pierre looked down at me.

“The gutter,” he said. “The gutter.”

“Look, Jacques—” I tried, but he went on.

“Suppose you have a leak?” he said. “The water drips into your house. Then, you have a puddle. You call me. You say, ‘Jacques, I have soft walls. Rotten wood.’ I stop the leak. I plaster walls. Repaint. You sleep well then?”

Jacques kept talking, but all I could hear was the pounding next door. There was a man on the deck hammering a wooden railing into place. One man was digging up dirt with a tractor. The other was drilling rock.

“You think the gutter is not important,” he said. “You’d rather sleep. Forget. Watch water destroy your home.”

The driveway had been paved before. The men had torn up the asphalt. They had sifted the dirt with their machines. Now they were laying rock. Jacques Pierre was speaking, but the words were lost to their machines: ripping apart. Gashing.

“I can’t sleep,” I tried again. “I can’t sleep,” I told him.

Jacques looked at me. He stopped talking. Then, he looked back at the machinery.

“Ah. That?” he said. “A driveway. A deck. Not so important. They ask me, the house do better with a coat of paint. I’ll go talk to them,” he said. “First, we fix that tile.”


^^^^^

Some of the tile had fallen in the last storm. Pieces lay in cracks.

“You see the broken ones?” Jacques Pierre called from the ground. I had climbed over him and onto ladder. “We need to repair,” he called.

I had changed into jeans and a sweatshirt. My hair, black and thin, was pulled into a ponytail. I didn’t want to repair the tiles. Instead, I wanted to sit on the roof and brush away the dirt.

“You climb down,” Jacques Pierre said, and I thought of staying up there. Then, the ladder shook slightly.

“I’m coming,” I called. I balanced my soles in the center of each rung.

“We use pry bars to lift up the tile,” said Jacques Pierre once I reached the ground. “We lift up the good tiles. Take away the bad ones.”

He climbed up the ladder again, and I watched as he put the pry bars in place.

“You do gently,” he said, turning his head down slightly to the right so that I thought he might lose his balance. “Otherwise, you break the good tile, too.”

When all of the tiles had been lifted, Jacques Pierre slid out the old one.

“This is for you,” he said, stepping down a few stairs and passing me the broken tile. He climbed back up and put a new one in its place.

Jacques Pierre continued to work.

“You like?” he asked after he had replaced all of the cracked tiles and returned to the ground. The old tiles pebbled the roof. They were seashells in a white sand.

“It looks good,” I said. “I guess there won’t be any leaks, anyway.”

“No. No leaks,” said Jacques Pierre, returning the pry bars to his toolbox.

^^^^^

When Jacques returned from the house next door, he handed me a slip of paper.

“What’s this?” I asked, unfolding the sheet.

“A number,” he said. “You call that man. He discuss the noise with you. Very simple,” he said.

“Yes, I know,” I said.

Next door, the music had been turned down and all of the workers had left for lunch except for one man. He was sitting in the bed of his truck, eating a sandwich. He waved when he saw me.

“Are you sure this is the right number?” I said, looking down at the paper. “That’s the man I should be talking to?”

“Yah. That’s him,” said Jacques Pierre, his mouth turning up with a smile. “You call,” he said.

Jacques Pierre took his toolbox and headed towards his car. I was still holding that piece of broken tile. There was a crack down the center of it, but the whole remained intact. I thought about using the old pieces to tile a path in the backyard.

“Goodbye, Jacques,” I called as he opened his car door. He smiled before closing the door behind him.

III.


It was early spring, and Jacques Pierre was out of town.

“You do something productive,” he said before he left. While he was gone, I replaced an old alarm clock. The toilet had been running, and I reattached the chain that had slipped inside the tank. I cleaned the kitchen each morning. At night, I disinfected the bathrooms. I waited for Jacques Pierre to return.

One day, I heard a knock at the door.

“Who is it?” I called through the window.

“My name is Kirk. Your friend Jacques Pierre told me to stop by.”

Kirk had worked on the site next door. He had dark brown eyes and red hair.

“You never called,” he said when I opened the door. The construction workers had finished their job two weeks ago, and I had thrown the paper with his number on it away.

“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know it was your number.”

Kirk smiled and pointed at the house next door. “You like the job we did?” he asked, still standing on the front porch.

The house had a deck now and a gravel driveway. Two weeks ago, painters had come and turned the house blue.

“It looks nice,” I said.

“I’m glad you like it.”

Kirk stood there for a while. He looked at me. He smiled. “Well—” he said. “Well,” and he stepped off the porch to leave.

“Kirk,” I called, before he had turned away. “Maybe we should get coffee later?”

“Yeah,” he said. “That would be nice.”

^^^^^

Later that afternoon, I went for a haircut.

“Something different,” I said, when the stylist asked what I wanted.

Her name was Genny with a “G,” she told me. Her hair was blonde and reached past her shoulders. She wore a white button-down shirt, her stomach puffing slightly past her blue jeans.

For a second I thought about cutting a few inches off my hair. Before Genny put the scissors in her hands, I changed my mind.

“Don’t cut it too short,” I said.

“Oh no, hun,” said Genny, running her fingers through the black strands. “This beautiful hair,” she said. “I wouldn’t dare.”

Genny was thirty-five and from North Carolina. She had migrated north after high school and graduated from the same university I had.

“Way back then,” she told me. “I wanted to work with my hands.”

“Yes,” I said. “That sounds right.”

Genny was holding my hair up to the light, catching the ends with her fingers and trimming before letting each strand fall back into place.

“What do you do, darling?” she asked, and I looked at the bright bulbs that surrounded the mirror in front of me. Beside my seat, there was an empty chair. There was a woman sitting three seats down with foil in her hair, the stylist painting each foiled section a darker red.

“I think I’m going to apply for something new,” I said. “Maybe art school.”

“That sounds nice,” said Genny. I was facing her now, and she was measuring the strands of hair against each other, trimming slightly when one piece looked out of place.

“You’re going to love this haircut,” she told me.

She turned me around so that I was facing the mirror. Genny had given me bangs, and there were shorter wisps of hair in the front.

“Let me show you the back,” she said, holding up a mirror. “Don’t you love it?”

“Yes,” I said, unbuttoning the smock and brushing the dead hair away from my shoulders.

“I knew you would,” said Genny. “And you can part it different ways,” she showed me. “Maybe a little to the front, if you want.”

“Great,” I said, and she smiled, walking towards the register and leaving me in the chair. “You come join me when you’re ready,” she said.

I looked at myself in the mirror. The black hair framed my face. It was smooth and well tamed. The bright bulbs shined back through my eyes.


^^^^^

I had forgotten to turn on the porch light and had to feel for the keyhole in the dark.

“Great,” I whispered to myself, groping for the light in the hallway once I had opened the door.

After I found the switch, I headed for the kitchen. “Jacques Pierre,” I called. I could hear the faucet dripping. It had been dripping for the past week. I could get it to stop if I twisted the knob tightly to the left, but then I had to use both hands to turn it back on.

“Jacques,” I called again, expecting him to appear suddenly from the pantry.

“That dripping,” he would say. “We need to fix. Think of your utility bill.”

Underneath the sink, I looked for a pair of pliers. I kept a set there along with a travel toolbox I bought at the grocery store. I knew the names of the tools but not how to use them. There was a ratchet wrench. Nose pliers. A handsaw. I grabbed a wrench and tightened it around the knob. The wrench slipped, stripping the plastic from the handle, leaving tooth marks.

I sat down on the floor.

The light in the kitchen was faint so that the surrounding objects appeared as shadows: my purse sitting on the countertop. The stool with its spider legs crawling out towards the center of the room. I could see parts of my face in the black oven door. There was the indentation below my lip. There was my smooth, black hair.

“It’s short,” I said, running my fingers through it. “It’s really short,” and I felt something small rise in my chest.

“It’s not that important,” Jacques Pierre would say, looking at my hair.

“That’s not it,” I wanted to tell him. “You don’t understand.”

I heard the dripping from the faucet. I could turn on the television later. I could listen to the messages on my machine.

“This is your mother,” it would say. “Why haven’t you called?”

Instead, I lay down, curled up against my keys. In the morning, I woke on the floor, the back of my hand imprinted with the kitchen’s tile.


IV.



“I have come to fix,” said Jacques Pierre. I was in the garden pulling weeds and placing them in a pile by the sidewalk.

“Nothing’s broken,” I said, looking up at Jacques. He was wearing shorts and a pale sweater that matched his hair. There were white strands crawling down his legs and towards his sandals.

“Nothing?” said Jacques. “You have nothing to repair?” he said, looking down at the pile of weeds.

“I guess not,” I said, taking off my gardening gloves and holding them in my hand.

“I see,” said Jacques. He looked away for a second. When he looked back, I could see the smooth skin underneath his wrinkles. His eyes were a faded blue.

“Well—” I said, looking down the street at the busy intersection. “There is the shower upstairs,” I said. “It doesn’t drain too well.”

“Not a problem,” said Jacques Pierre. “We can fix.” The light returned to his eyes so that they seemed a darker blue now. He clasped his hands together. I got up from the garden, and we headed into the house.


^^^^^

“It’s dirty, no?” said Jacques Pierre once had we had reached the bathroom. He was kneeling on the floor, shining his flashlight down the drain.

“It’s a little gross,” I said, looking down at Jacques. He was scooping dirt from the drain with his finger.
“We need a hanger,” he said, pulling out a few strands of hair, and I headed for the bedroom to find one.

“Here you go,” I said, handing him the hanger once I returned.

“You need this again?” Jacques asked. He was already bending the hanger out of place, reaching the hook down the drain.

“I guess not,” I said as Jacques Pierre pulled more dirt and hair from the pipes.

“It always gets bad after a month or two,” I said. “Maybe I should clean more often?”

“Yah,” said Jacques Pierre. “You clean everyday,” he said, not looking up from his work. “Otherwise, this get very bad.”

When Jacques was done removing the dirt, he filled the tub with water. He took off his sandals and grabbed the plunger from beside the toilet.

“We do this a little,” Jacques said, stepping into the bathtub and holding the plunger over the drain. “We remove the blockage,” he said.

“What about those liquid drainers?” I asked.

Jacques stopped and turned his head to face me. The plunger reached past his thighs and to his buckle. The water on the handle dripped into ghostly extensions of his fingers.

“Mademoiselle, you must not,” he said, pointing down at the drain. “You have plastic pipes. PVC,” he said. “You pour chemical down. It cleans, sure. But, you use again? Soon pipes erode. You have bigger problem, no?”

“I understand, Jacques,” I said, looking down as the water slowly drained from tub. I looked at Jacques standing there. His legs were red, the water magnifying them, so that the body above the water seemed separate from the body below.

“I understand,” I said again. Jacques was looking back down at the plunger. “It’s not easy though, Jacques,” I said. I waited for a minute, but Jacques didn’t respond. My face turned red. “Jacques!” I called out again.

“Sorry, Mademoiselle,” he said finally, looking up from the plunger. “You’re right,” he said. “Not easy.”

I sighed and Jacques Pierre looked back down at his work. He would unclog the drain in a day. I would struggle to keep it that way, spraying the walls and porcelain tub. I would tie my hair back when I wasn’t washing it. Still, the water would turn gray, rising above my ankles.

“You find it easy one day,” Jacques said. He hadn’t looked up, and I was surprised to hear his voice. “Then, you find new problem,” he said.

“I guess so,” I answered back.

Jacques looked back down at the plunger. He had his hands on the wooden handle but seemed not to notice. He didn’t move.

“Jacques?” I asked again.

“Yah. I get to work,” he said. He began plunging the drain. He did it mechanically. He didn’t look up. Jacques Pierre worked until the drain had cleared.


^^^^^

“You put this down drain every few weeks,” said Jacques Pierre. He held a box of baking soda in his hands. I nodded my head, and he sprinkled a tablespoon or two down the drain.

“This is miracle,” he said finally, after he had tapped the last of the baking soda out of the box. “You stand back,” he said, and he reached for a bottle of vinegar. He poured a few drops down the drain. Suddenly, the baking soda erupted from the pipes below.

“Weeeee,” said Jacques Pierre when he saw it. “A volcano.”

A few moments before, Jacques’ face seemed sunken and dull, his wrinkles sagging below his jaw line. Now Jacques Pierre smiled.

“Fun. Is it not?” he asked.

“I guess it is,” I told him, watching. Jacques Pierre covered the drain with a plastic stopper. He waited a few minutes before opening the drain and rinsing with water.


^^^^^

I had tiled a path leading from the backyard to the front of the house. It was made from Jacques Pierre’s tile and followed the movement of the fence next door. Beside it was an empty flower box.

“You like it?” I asked Jacques. We had finished in the bathroom upstairs and had made our way to the back entrance. Jacques was standing beside me, his toolbox in his hands.

“Yah,” said Jacques Pierre. “It is art, is it not?”

“Yes. I guess so,” I said. “I’m going to plant some flowers back here. And, I was thinking of some veggies, too.”

Jacques Pierre nodded his head. “You have plan then,” he said, and we headed towards the front of the house. When he reached his car, Jacques Pierre opened the passenger door and placed his toolbox on the seat.

“I will fix for you again,” he said.

“I am sure of it, Jacques,” I told him, and I reached out my hand. He covered it lightly with his fingers. Jacques Pierre got into the car.

I turned before I could see him drive away. I watched the old tool shed in the backyard. It was nearly hidden by foliage. The windows were covered in moss. I would give that shed a new coat of paint, I thought. I would clean the windows and plant wildflowers at the corners of the shed and down the tiled path.